“I thought it was a sex-fuelled, alcohol-fuelled year of doing God knows what.”
Freshers’ certainly has a reputation as a week for excessive drinking, night after night of partying, and lots of casual sex. In my experience of Freshers’ Week, I found that participating in the club nights was the best way to make friends with flatmates; but these nights include much more than just a couple pints and the necessary Freshers’ wristband. We’ve all heard about the epidemic of student binge drinking, but less attention is drawn to how casual sex in many cases is the basis of fresher social groups.
To find out how students who don’t necessarily want to participate in the infamous hook-up culture at university feel about this, I had a chat with two asexual students about their experiences. Matthew* (male, Alcuin) and Amy* (female, Constantine) both lived on campus during their first year.
Freshers’ is a time where students are trying to make friends with their flatmates, and “pulling” is a way to establish oneself in a social group. Matthew explained that in his flat, pulling was “seen as an achievement” and hooking up with girls “earnt [him] respect from [his] flatmates” even though he didn’t enjoy the experiences. Amy came into university with the perception that she “would have to have sex in order to not come across as weird”. It seems that being a person who has an active sex life makes you more likely to make friends, and gives you a better social standing. These are both things that freshers are often worried about when coming to uni. Hook-up culture can have significant negative impacts when applied to the social pressure to have sex even if you don’t particularly want to.
When Matthew discussed his disinterest towards sex his friends told him to “try it again … it’s weird to dislike sex”. This toxic behaviour is surprisingly common, and runs contrary to the freedom for self-discovery that university is supposed to provide. Due to the focus and idealisation of sex, especially by young men, any disinterest or lack of enjoyment around sex can be seen as “emasculating”. We, as part of our student community, need to ensure that those around us don’t feel pressured into having sex in order to be part of functioning friend groups or merely to gain ”bravado”.
The University can certainly take a better role in ensuring asexual students feel more comfortable. When I asked about what resources the University currently provides to support students who are asexual, or think they might be, Matthew pointed out that “that kind of support would probably come through the LGBTQ+ Officers”. However he also clarified that “although some ace people do, I personally don’t identify as LGBTQ+, so those networks can’t really support me in the same way”.
Amy suggested that in the consent talks ran by colleges in Freshers’ Week, she felt like she would have greatly benefitted from “even a short line, on how you don’t have to have sex at all if you don’t want to, and how not being interested in sex is valid and normal” rather than just “don’t feel pressured to have sex by one specific person if you’re not interested in that person or at that specific time”. So, colleges could ensure that they don’t assume everyone will be having sex as the basis for their advice.
Both students brought up how sex and relationships are often intrinsically linked. Amy suggested that “for some people, sex is vital to a relationship”. Many asexual people find it difficult to find a partner who can accept having a romantic but not sexual relationship. Matthew explained how in his first year, he “certainly found it as a trade off, like [he] had to have sex in order to be in a relationship”. This is even further complicated by university hook-up culture, where many relationships actually begin with a one night stand. So, it can be even more difficult to build a relationship where an asexual partner doesn’t feel pressured to add a sexual dynamic when they don’t want to.
Unfortunately, the stigma towards asexual students, or people who aren’t interested in or ready to engage in sexual relationships is commonplace in university. This is even more significant towards men, who find that “having an active sex life” is a major element of masculinity, and guides social standing. Hook-up culture currently forms the basis of social groups in university, especially when making friends with flatmates in freshers’ week. Students shouldn’t feel pressured into having sex when they don’t want to, in any circumstance.
The student community needs to recognise that this isn’t only related to sexual harassment, but is integrated into the very basics of student life: drinking games, shag charts, club nights, and friendship groups. We need recognition, and we need to change our attitudes. Wanting to engage in casual sex is valid, not wanting to is equally valid. Every student has the right to make their own decisions on this matter, and such decisions should not influence their friendships or social standing.
*Names have been changed.
Featured Image by Barcex